Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada

On January 30, 2010, ambassadors from the United States and seven Western nations met with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to urge Japan to address its child custody issues; the current Japanese system enables parents who abduct their children and interferes with the ability of divorced foreign parents to see their children in Japan. International parental child abduction occurs when a marriage between nationals of different states fails and one parent takes the child to another country or detains the child in violation of a custody or visitation order and without the consent of the other parent. In some cases, the parent who is left behind cannot visit the child because laws in the country where the child has been taken provide protections to the abductors.

In most countries, in the event of a divorce, parents make a child custody arrangement, detailing their legal rights over their children, including visitation and custodial rights and responsibilities. Such custodial arrangements, however, are unenforceable in Japan, where the country’s Family Code only recognizes sole custody and does not provide visitation rights for noncustodial parents. Divorced Japanese parents can bring their children to Japan in violation of custody or visitation arrangements made in a foreign country and face no repercussions. If the abducting spouse refuses to have contact with their former spouses, the foreign parents ultimately lose access to their children. As a result, some critics have called Japan an “international haven for child abduction.” Moreover, activist groups such as the Assembly for French Overseas Nationals for Japan estimate that as many as ten thousand children with dual citizenship in Japan are unable to contact their foreign parents.

As international marriages and divorce rates increase, the number of parental child abductions crossing international borders also continues to grow. According to 2010 statistics released by the U.S. Embassy in Japan, the number of parental child abduction cases in Japan almost doubled between 2007 and 2009. The longstanding child custody problems in Japan gained international attention last year when an American father, Christopher Savoie, was arrested by Japanese police after he attempted to take his two children to the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka, Japan. Christopher alleged that his ex-wife, Noriko, illegally removed their children from the United States without his knowledge. Upon the couple’s divorce in Tennessee, a court granted custody of the two children to Noriko and gave Christopher visitation rights. Despite her agreement to stay in the United States, Noriko fled to Japan with the two children. After spending over two weeks in jail, Christopher was released on the condition that he would not take his children back to the United States.

The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction protects parental rights of access to their children by providing a legal mechanism for returning a child wrongfully removed from their country of habitual residence. The increasing number of parental child abductions is what prompted ambassadors from the eight countries to urge Japan to sign the Convention; they emphasized that children, for their welfare, should have access to both parents. Japan is the only industrialized nation in the Group of Seven that has not ratified the Convention, meaning that Christopher Savoie continues to have no legal remedy or venue in which to assert his legal parental rights.

Japan regards its decision not to sign the Convention as a protection for Japanese women and children fleeing from abusive relationships with foreign nationals. Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, however, recently announced that Japan will review the Convention, a sign that Japan may be considering a policy change. Whether or not Japan ultimately signs the Convention, the country must address the growing issue of international parental child abduction disputes in order to guarantee parental rights and to assure that custodial arrangements are made to serve the best interests of the children.